This paper analyses the diagnostic studies of this special issue to underline their function in probing the opportunity for transformational change and the potential of socio-technical novelties in such processes of change. The studies document the ability of poor, illiterate farmers to create novelties, and, sometimes, to develop the institutional and informational capacities needed to support and disseminate the novelties. The studies also show that it is not easy for farmers to change ‘the rules of the game’ that are encoded in routine practices, the relationships amongst organizations, normative behaviours, informal or formal regulations, bylaws and so on. The general methodologies of the studies documented in this special issue are discussed and their potential, strengths and weaknesses are indicated. The studies might not have yielded significant policy lessons but they have provided well-grounded insights into processes of sense-making, contextually relevant criteria for and processes of assessment, and into the initiation of change. They have developed sufficient initial understanding for building and informing institutional innovation. How successful (or not) that process has been will be analysed in later reports from the CoS-SIS programme.